PD Editorial: Plan for a managed retreat from climate change

Climate change will be a costly, slow-rolling disaster. Sea levels will rise, encroaching on coastal communities.|

Climate change will be a costly, slow-rolling disaster. Sea levels will rise, encroaching on coastal communities. Hotter conditions will lead to more frequent and severe wildfires. And those are just two of the threats to California specifically. Mitigation and planning for the worst must no longer be optional.

Yet despite encouragement from the state, local communities are doing far too little to plan for dealing with this in the most cost-effective way possible - by getting businesses and residents out of harm's way before disaster strikes.

Here in Sonoma County, we've seen devastating wildfires that have cost lives and destroyed millions of dollars in property. Flooding from extreme weather events hit Sonoma County hard in 2019, and our coastal towns and beaches are at risk from rising oceans.

A recent study found that the federal government could save more than $1 trillion over the next century by paying to remove homes from flood-prone areas and relocating residents. The California Coastal Commission has been urging coastal communities to consider the inevitability of sea rise in their long-term planning and think about how to relocate vulnerable structures - a concept known as managed retreat.

The few California communities that did adopt managed retreat options in planning saw fierce resistance from local residents. They feared the government would take their property by force. As a result, these planning efforts have collapsed.

“There's managed retreat, and there's unmanaged retreat,” said Coastal Commission member Sara Aminzadeh. “It's a great disappointment to me to see local leaders take the easy way out. In my heart I feel that leaders of all levels of government need to step up. It's their responsibility.”

It may be their responsibility, but local California governments don't appear too eager to do the work of persuading property owners that it is in their interests, not just the community's interest, to prepare for what is coming.

And it is coming. According to a recent study in Nature, more than $150 billion worth of property and 600,000 people could be affected by climate- driven flooding as the ocean rises 2 to 10 feet by 2100.

Some opponents of managed retreat prefer to prepare by protecting their homes and businesses with sea walls, jetties and other barriers. But these kinds of barriers can fail, like the levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Who gets stuck with the cost of rebuilding if that happens?

For too long, the federal flood insurance program has paid people to rebuild in flood-prone areas rather than paying them to relocate - even after repeated floods. That should stop. Payouts should be contingent on relocating out of harm's way. Elevating properties has significantly reduced the damage caused by periodic flooding in the lower Russian River basin.

Climate change is happening now, and the impacts are being felt around the world. While we need to take action to reduce emissions and avert as much warming as possible, the negative consequences are now all but inevitable.

Preparing and planning for those consequences is necessary. Doing so now will save money and lives in the long-term - however politically difficult it may be in the short term.

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